Bob Robe is a glutton for punishment. He’s worked at Gale Banks Engineering longer than any other current employee—this January will mark 25 years.
Seriously, Bob just told me that he couldn’t envision working anywhere else that would afford him the wide range of jobs that he enjoys here. To say that Bob is multitalented is a serious understatement.
His current title is Chief Designer—and that he is. Bob not only makes engineering drawings of all our new products for pattern makers or fabricators to follow, but in most cases he actually designs them as well, following input from Gale. But Bob also puts in time here as a graphic artist, illustrator, architect of sorts, TIG welder, plumber, head porter, machinist, fabricator, assembler—you name it, he can do it. Not only that, but he does it well. Robe’s welds are beautiful. So’s his machining. His routing and bending of hard lines—a very difficult task—is always impeccable. He actually enjoys it. His approach to all of these operations is that of an artist.
Bob started drawing at an early age, encouraged by his mother, an art teacher. Even then he was intrigued by complicated industrial subjects. As a child, Bob says, he used to draw power distribution systems, or power plants, with lots of wires, tubes, circuits, transformers, and towers. A lot of what he draws here today looks similar.
Of course, by the time he got into Junior High he got hooked on hot rods; “strange, unique vehicles,” Bob called them. Then his attention honed in on drag racing. It became his passion. As a “nerdy kid on a bike” he’d hang around Quincy Automotive in Santa Monica to see real race cars, such as the Brisette Brothers’. And of course he drew them, especially dragsters. They were so good that his classmates would actually buy them. “I think I got two dollars for them,” he said. “Maybe five if I colored them.” For these school drawings, Bob used colored pencils. By High School he was using watercolors, and one of his favorite subjects was exotic drag race engines.
Bob also spent time hanging out at the Douglas Aircraft surplus yard, where he gravitated to aircraft fuel lines and plumbing. “Race cars used aircraft plumbing,” Bob noted. At this time he was even considering a career as a commercial plumber—you know, water and sewer pipes.
Before he could drive, Bob talked his father into taking him to the drags at Lions, Fontana, Pomona, San Gabriel, and such places. After he turned 16 his father further abetted Bob’s habit by giving him the ’56 Chevy wagon he had bought new. With a newer 283 V8 installed, Bob said he kept changing the induction system more to change the looks of the engine than anything else.
After High School Bob spent two years studying (and practicing) Technical Illustration at L.A. Trade Tech, so he is not untrained in his specific field. Next he got a B.A. in Industrial Technology at Cal State L.A., because it stressed more of the hands-on doing rather than engineering theory. “I’m more of an artist than an engineer,” Bob says, flatly. But this is also where Bob learned hand skills such as machining and welding. “I fell in love with TIG welding,” Bob says. “That’s what race cars are built with.” When you see Bob’s welding, it’s obvious he loves doing it.
In the next five or six years after graduation, Bob mixed part-time work as an aircraft illustrator with graduate school at Cal State. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an M.A. program in Industrial Technology, and Bob didn’t want to study Engineering, so he chose Education. He never did complete the M.A., but this is how he met Gale Banks.
Bob still had the ’56 Chevy wagon, and by this time he had installed an Accel turbocharger kit on it. Gale came to the school to give a lecture on turbocharging, which Bob of course attended. During the talk, Gale mentioned that some jobs were available at his shop, and afterwards he went out to look at Robe’s turbo installation on his Chevy. Bob says he thinks Gale was impressed.
More importantly, Bob inquired about the jobs available at Banks. There were three: Chief Engineer, “Turbo Rigger,” and janitor. Since he didn’t really have an engineering background, Bob applied for the Turbo Rigger position, which was installing the twin turbos and all the other external components on the basic crate motors. At this time, 1978, Banks was building strictly marine engines, and 98% were twin-turboed Big Block Chevies.
Gale hired Bob. But, given his experience, he decided Bob would be Chief Engineer, not Turbo Rigger. The shop was on San Gabriel Blvd. in San Gabriel. There were about 15 employees. And as Chief Engineer, Bob had one employee under him, a machinist. You can imagine that everybody had to wear several hats at Banks at the time. In the beginning Bob primarily did drafting and designing, but also did mock-ups, fitment, new products, and new turbo configurations. In between he did shop designs, floor plans, and architecture, especially after the move to Azusa in 1982 and continual expansion. And if that weren’t enough, in those early days Bob wrote technical copy and ad copy, designed ads and brochures, and did the layouts for the printers. And all this doesn’t even mention welding, machining, tube bending, and wrenching on special projects or race cars, or even things like plumbing the dyno cells.
Now for the fun part—toys. Robe’s got plenty of them. They’re all over his desk. But it’s the one outside his office door that wins the desk toy competition here at Banks. It’s a full-on, ’60s-era, dragster-style blown and injected Chrysler Hemi V8. And it’s just one of three he has.
Actually, it started with a Willys. If you’re into drag cars, you’ve got to love Willyses, because they’re the quintessential Gassers. In fact, drag aficionados are really the only people who like Willyses, both the lean ’33-’36s and the fat ’37-’41s. But the ones who love them are passionate about them. The only problem, as Bob readily admits, is that they are so rare, and their owners are so passionate, that most of them stay in a state of constant construction. That’s certainly been the case with Bob’s. He started in 1980 with a ’35 4-door sedan. He boxed and braced the frame, added coil-over suspension and wheelie bars, and built a twin-turbocharged Buick V6 for power. Next came a Chevy V6 with lots of custom machining and twin-distributor ignition (this was at the tail of a short-lived V6 blip in the high performance field). Somewhere along the line, the ’35 4-door sedan morphed into a ’33 coupe, and the boxed stock frame was replaced with a complete custom frame made of 2×3 tubing by Bob.
However, if you know anything about Willys Gassers, you know they’re really supposed to have Chrysler Hemis in them—blown Chrysler Hemis. Bob claims it was an article I did in the December ’88 issue of Rod & Custom that convinced him his Willys had to have a Hemi, but he quickly became an early Chrysler addict. Again, if you know drag fanatics, you know what I mean. Robe can’t help collecting early Chrysler parts and drag accessories—blowers, injectors, pumps, magnetos, valve covers, you name it. All three of his engines have 6-71 GMC blowers on them. The one in the Willys has two 4-barrel carburetors, but the others always have some sort of fuel injectors. The fun part is that the one outside Bob’s office is always changing. One week it will have a Hilborn 4-port injector and scoop with M/T breadpan valve covers, the next week it’ll have an Enderle bug catcher with Donovan valve covers.
But the thing is that none of these engines has any pistons in them. In all the time he’s had it, the Willys has never moved under it’s own power. Neither of the V6s ever ran. It’s certainly not that Bob’s incapable of finishing this project—not at all. It’s just that, as he says, he’s more of an artist than an engineer. He, very self-admittedly, sees these Chrysler Hemi engines, and the whole Willys, as art objects rather than practical, usable, machines. Personally, I’d like to hear one of those blown Hemis bark and cackle. On the other hand, I fully understand.